Backscatter: The Case for Aptitude Testing

By Donald Christiansen

At a recent meeting of several seasoned engineers the speaker reported that, thus far, most K-12 STEM programs have little or no “E” content. This provoked a lively discussion. At one extreme was the argument that some students do not need and should not be required to undertake STEM studies. Any missing “E” content would be a non-issue for this group. Others argued that in today’s complex technical environment, STEM content, including its engineering aspects, would benefit all students.

Not surprisingly, these differences led to a discussion of how best to match skillsets to both job requirements and job availability, and also how skillsets are a function of both one’s intrinsic skills and subsequent training.

What is the role of aptitude testing in all this, someone at the meeting asked. Aptitude tests were once widely used in K-12 grades and perhaps still are, if they have not given way to Common Core testing. An aptitude test, as Webster defines it, is a test for determining the probability of a person’s success in some activity in which he or she is not yet trained. Aptitude is a natural ability, inclination, or talent. Although the terms “aptitude” and “skill” are often used interchangeably, there are differences. It is easier to become skilled at something for which you have a special aptitude.

Aptitude testing in the early grades can provoke an interest in an area that a student was previously unaware of, and, ultimately, steer him or her toward a challenging educational path and a rewarding career.

As a student progresses to higher grade levels, aptitude test questions become more specific and thus begin to probe particular skills the subject may have already acquired.

A Few Examples


Parents and students may take advantage of aptitude tests available on an extracurricular basis. One such can be found at The four-step test begins with questions on skill levels for various attributes, such as logic (reasoning and problem solving), judgment, and communicating with colleagues. It continues with questions on personal interests, like science and technology, biology and health care, and economics and finance.

Other notable tests include:

  • The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), designed for K-8 grades. A typical question for first and second graders might show several geometric figures and ask how many are triangles.

  • The Differential Aptitude Test by Pearson Education, particularly useful in identifying math/engineering potentials in 7th– to 12th-grade students.

  • The OASIS-3 Aptitude Survey measures factors including mathematical, spatial, and perceptual aptitudes.

The SATs


The speaker at the aforementioned meeting cited the SATs, with which most readers are no doubt personally familiar, as it is required by most colleges as part of the admission process. When SAT was introduced by the private non-profit College Board in 1926, it was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Later it was renamed the Scholastic Assessment Test, then the SAT Reasoning Test, and today simply the SAT. The current SAT is a 3-hour, 45-minute test covering mathematics, critical reading, and writing. An example of a math question is this: “In the sequence 55, 176, 539, and 1628, each term after the first is determined by multiplying by x and then adding y. If x and y are each greater than zero, and if they are integers, then what does the term x + y equal?” I like this type of question. A student with good logical reasoning skills may immediately recognize it as a trial-and-error problem and may conclude that a calculator is unnecessary and that no equations need be written.

With all due respect for the importance of SAT, I wonder about aptitude testing in the early grades. Is it being phased out? Without greater attention to aptitude testing at the K-8 level, it may be that more students will be encouraged to pursue careers based on desired salary levels, or where they work and live, rather than seeking an enjoyable, psychologically rewarding career. I recall the many aptitude tests that were used in grades K-8 in the mid-twentieth century. In retrospect, I’m certain they played a role in making it easy for me to choose from among the high school course options . The scientific option was my obvious choice. (It was packed with all the math, physics, science, biology, and chemistry courses then available, and only seventeen of us from a class of more than 200 selected it.)

Inputs regarding your personal experiences with aptitude tests, and/or your awareness of today’s early-grades aptitude testing are welcome.


Macklem, G., “Measuring Aptitude,” copyright 1990, retrieved August 21, 2014 from

Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), the Riverside Publishing Company.


Paek, P., P.W. Holland, and P. Suppes, “Development and Analysis of a Mathematical Aptitude Test for Gifted Elementary School Students,” School Science and Mathematics, pp. 338-3347, 99-1999.

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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